When Australian journalist and self-confessed sweet tooth Sarah Wilson decided to give up sugar for a month back in 2011, she had no way of knowing how profoundly that decision would impact her life. Diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, doctors told Wilson for years that a no-sugar diet was best for her health. Finally, in 2011, she quit sugar—but purely, she said, as an experiment.
Now, six years later, Wilson has seen almost 1.5 million people worldwide quit sugar through her eight-week I Quit Sugar program. She’s a New York Times bestselling author of three I Quit Sugar books and educates people across the globe on the damage that sugar can cause to your health.
When I read through Wilson’s biography, I wasn’t surprised. For years, thousands of health professionals have been expounding on the dangers of sugar, and for good reason: studies have linked an over-consumption of sugar to metabolic dysfunction, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
The point of contention, for me, came with the following word: over-consumption. It has been proven that an over-consumption of anything can be bad. But what about sugar in moderation or the occasional treat here and there? Wilson’s I Quit Sugar program bans sugar in any form, including sweeteners and fruit,* something that has attracted armies of devotees and critics alike. Eating disorders counsellor Paula Kotowicz was one of the most vocal opponents of this strict diet, saying that the movement could do more harm than good.
“My concerns are related to the fact that all-or-nothing diets tend to involve heavy restriction,” she says on her website. “[But] research has shown repeatedly that serious restriction and deprivation can be pathways to binge eating episodes, disordered eating or eating disorder development, in some individuals.”
Sydney nutritionist Cassie Platt also hit back at the no-sugar fad, going as far as to write a book in direct response, titled Don’t Quit Sugar. “Quitting sugar is an easy movement for people to latch on to without asking questions, but they would be better off focusing on a balanced diet—not one that emphasises restrictions,” she says. “These low-sugar diets demonise fructose and people become fearful of foods that contain it, and that includes fruit. That’s just crazy.”
With all this in mind, and after observing and researching both sides of the anti-sugar movement, I decided to give it a go myself. Why not? I thought. I’m not a huge sweet tooth—I much prefer savoury foods—so how hard could it be?
I designed my own eating plan: a mix of everything I’d read, while maintaining what I believed was a happy medium between the two extreme viewpoints. Though I didn’t think I was addicted to sugar, if an opportunity for dessert arose, I’d hardly ever say no. My goal, therefore, was to eliminate sugar in its most delicious form: treats.
For a month, I banned myself from cakes, muffins, biscuits, chocolate bars, yoghurt, juices and lollies. I didn’t exclude fresh fruit, as my aim was to cut out as much processed sugar as I could, and most of the research I came across, including Platt’s, vehemently advocated against the removal of fruit for a healthy diet.
I was curious to see if I’d notice any changes in my body after only a month. I brought this up with my family doctor at my monthly check up and ran the challenge past him. He was amused when I explained my plan, but he gave me the green light and said he hoped I’d do well.
I chose February to start my dessert ban and it proved to be the worst month I could have picked. I battled through morning meetings with yummy treats, afternoon teas at work, my monthly wedding anniversary (we’re celebrating every month for our first year of marriage), Valentine’s Day, birthday parties and dinner meetings where desserts seemed to sing my name. Nevertheless, I was determined, and I kept a weekly diary to monitor my progress.
Changes: Skin is clearing up.
This is easy. I can do this. I’m strong-willed and I will not fail. Except . . . are those chocolate-chip biscuits I smell? Thank you, team, for sitting a bucket of biscuits in our office on the very first day of my fast! I resisted—barely.
The rest of the week has been up and down. Sometimes I’d see people eating an ice-cream and be fine. Other times I’d find myself longingly wishing for its deliciously cold creaminess on a 40-degree day in the office. Nevertheless, week one is down and I’m grateful. Though I’ve had a dull headache for a few days, I’m already seeing the few breakouts on my face reduce in size.
Changes: Skin is continuing to clear, headaches have worsened, irritability is high.
OK, this is hard. Sunday was our monthly wedding anniversary and my husband brought home flowers and chocolates. “I’ll just put these in the fridge and you can eat them when your challenge is over,” he said, referring to the latter. I wondered, Is he deliberately trying to test my willpower? I think so, because on Monday night he came home with another chocolate gift. The forbidden pile keeps growing and I can feel my resolve slipping away.
Tuesday. I’ve failed. Birthday parties don’t count, right? There were two enormous chocolate cakes placed before me at the table and when the birthday girl served me a small slice of each, I couldn’t refuse. It would have been downright rude to do so! Count this as the first failure—though I only ate half of each slice.
Wednesday. I’ve decided, in my desperation, that I’m not a person who can quit things cold turkey. I’ve allowed myself one small treat on Saturdays only—and by this, I mean one serving size.
Thursday. My headaches are worse and I’m grumpy. I’m reticent to put these changes down to a sugar withdrawal. I’m not that addicted—am I?
Changes: Skin on face is clear, headaches are gone, more energy in mornings.
Something has happened. I was impatient all last week for Saturday, just waiting for my sugar hit. But this weekend, three weeks in, was the first time I didn’t crave sugar. I got to Saturday evening and realised I hadn’t consumed any sugar that day. And the best part? I didn’t feel like I needed it!
I also have more energy in the mornings and my husband, who has been trying to convert me into an early bird since we got married, is rejoicing. He says I’m giving up sugar forever, but I’m still hesitant to put this down to my detox. I think I’ll consult my doctor next week when I head back to see him.
I do have to note that while my cravings aren’t as strong as last week, temptation is everywhere. It’s incredible how much dessert I’m offered when I’m trying to avoid it. I’ll definitely be more mindful from now on around people who are trying to reduce certain foods in their diet.
Changes: Nothing since last week.
It’s confirmed. My doctor said the changes I’ve been noting have to do with my abstinence from sugar. He said that as long as I’m generally feeling well, the side effects I experienced aren’t anything to be concerned about.
I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s an odd feeling. Before I started the challenge, I thought I’d make it through the month no trouble—perhaps only one or two cravings. Halfway through, I became convinced that I wouldn’t make it and I had to modify the challenge to deal with my “needs”.
Now I’m almost through and although I felt a slight twinge of longing when a birthday cake was sliced up at a party, I didn’t drool over it like I used to. Nor do I feel the need to eat an entire pack of muffin bars in celebration when my month is up.
I’ve been asked several times since finishing my no-sugar month if I’d do it again. The short answer is no. The experiment was successful and the challenge was extremely beneficial, because it gave my body a month to clear itself up in spite of my two failures. I also don’t believe I was fully aware of how many treats I was consuming, as not eating them for a month made clear.
Because of this revelation, in the months that have followed, I’ve been much more aware of how many treats I’m consuming. While I’ve been decreasing the amount of dessert I eat, I’ve been increasing my exercise regime and I’m aiming for a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Before the challenge, I’d feel terrible if I overindulged on dessert, but I did nothing about it. Now, if I let myself indulge on a particular evening, I’ll keep an eye on my diet for the rest of the week and make sure to work out. And the most important part is that I won’t beat myself up for an occasional failure.
Should you completely quit sugar? I can’t answer that question for you. It’s important to note that Wilson, despite her good intentions to help others, gave up sugar for medical reasons, on the advice and guidance of highly qualified doctors, and that she herself is not a nutrition expert. So it’s best to consult your doctor before making any major changes in your diet or lifestyle.
But should you reduce your sugar consumption? Absolutely. Balance and self-control in any form are both medically and biblically based and are good practice for a healthy lifestyle.
As Platt says, there needs to be a return to balanced eating. “Take a step back from restrictions, and the idea of good and bad foods, and just re-evaluate what a balanced diet is. That way, a treat here and there isn’t going to be so bad.”
Thank goodness—it’s my birthday soon and blueberry cheesecake is always my favourite!
* After the eight-week program, participants are encouraged to reintroduce low-fructose fruits and if their body allows it, to gradually build up again until they are consuming most fruits and breads.